The threat to Trump in the hush-money case

A former president of the United States went on trial for the first time in American history on Monday. And as any political analyst will tell you, this Manhattan “hush money”/election-interference case is the least concerning to voters of Trump’s four indictments.

But what’s also true is that Americans have overwhelmingly found the facts of this case to be problematic. And they could soon learn (or relearn) plenty about something that potential Trump voters especially haven’t followed closely but could be troubling to them.

Let’s take start with the first part of that.

It’s easy to cast the New York charges against Trump — his alleged falsification of business records to conceal a hush money payment to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels late in the 2016 campaign — as small-bore. And relative to Trump’s allegedly subverting American democracy after the 2020 election and jeopardizing national security by withholding classified documents, it is.

But this is also a situation that Americans were quite concerned about when it broke through back in 2018.

Polling back then showed nearly 8 in 10 Americans regarded Trump’s actions as either illegal or unethical, and nearly 4 in 10 thought he had broken the law.

Those numbers generally exceeded those of Trump’s other controversies at the time, including the Russia investigation. They even rivaled later events like the ones that led to Trump’s two impeachments: the Ukraine scandal and his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

More recently, polling shows fewer Americans think Trump did something illegal in the hush money case than in the other cases. But the percentage who think he did something illegal or unethical — more than 7 in 10 in AP-NORC polling — is actually greater than in his other cases.

While the percentage who viewed Trump’s actions as illegal has never eclipsed 40 percent, that might undersell how problematic Americans could find — and arguably have found — the hush money to be.

When the controversy touched off in 2018, Economist/YouGov polling showed Americans said 56 percent to 20 percent that it would be a crime for a candidate “to pay someone to remain silent about an issue that may affect the outcome of an election. (That’s actually a pretty apt summary of what would become the Manhattan charges.) That number was considerably lower — 37 percent — among Republicans.

But when YouGov asked the same question again on the eve of Trump’s indictment last year, Americans said 72 percent to 11 percent that it would be a crime. And suddenly, 73 percent of Republican agreed. That’s a pretty overwhelming bipartisan consensus.

The apparent reason was that Trump supporters didn’t yet understand the context of the question was about Trump — who wasn’t mentioned. They hadn’t tuned in to news about the looming indictment. (Indeed, after Trump was indicted weeks later, the percentage of Republicans who said it would be a crime quickly dropped back below a majority.)

It all raises a familiar and vital question about Trump’s 2024 campaign — about people’s memories.

How much have people simply forgotten what they didn’t like about him? And how much will being reminded about that — and being more deeply informed about potentially criminal actions in cases like the Manhattan one — affect the presidential race?

What’s clear is that Trump supporters and independents are at a significant deficit when it comes to understanding these cases:

  • Polling has shown huge numbers of Republicans believe things that simply aren’t true about the cases. For instance, a majority of Republicans have said Trump didn’t even try to overturn the election. Half have said he didn’t take top secret and classified documents from the White House. (He objectively did both.)
  • A Marquette University Law School poll last summer showed a majority of independents said they had heard only “a little” (40 percent) or “nothing at all” (16 percent) about his classified documents case.
  • A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed nearly half of independents and Republicans said they were following Trump’s election-subversion cases “not so closely” or “not closely at all.” Just 3 in 10 Democrats said the same.
  • An Economist/YouGov poll last month showed just 18 percent of Republicans said they had heard “a lot” about the hush money case, and 39 percent said they had heard “nothing at all” about it. Those numbers were basically reversed among Democrats, 39 percent of whom had heard “a lot” and just 20 percent of whom had heard “nothing at all.”

The total picture suggests that lots of Americans and even Republicans could soon learn — or relearn — plenty about a situation they regard as unsavory or even illegal.

It might not be as much of a dealbreaker for voters as Trump’s other cases, and there is a real threat for prosecutors and Democrats in having Americans regard this process as overzealous.

That doesn’t mean it will be a proud moment for Trump.

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